Healing prayer among Jews
By the second temple period intercessory prayer was well established by Biblical precedence as a critical tool in the healer’s toolbox. Abraham and Moses had acquired cures through prayer (Genesis 20:17, Numbers 12:13). Elijah and Elisha had raised the dead by calling out to the Lord (1 Kings 17:21, 2 Kings 4:33). Even king Hezekiah had found refuge from terminal illness in penitent prayer (Isaiah 38:1-5).
It comes as no surprise then that second temple Jews closely associated healing with prayer and even reflected that association back onto their past. Traditions ascribing therapeutic and exorcistic prayers to heroes of old like Abraham, David, and Solomon, for instance, arose in this period.
So too do numerous written prayers preserved at Qumran, in the Jewish magical papyri, and in the rabbinical writings entreat God to ward off illness and protect against demons. It is clear that first century Jewish healers used these kinds of prayers in ritual therapy (cf. Hanina ben Dosa, Honi ha-M’agel).
Healing prayer among Christians
The early Jesus movement that emerged out of this milieu was thus one of many Jewish groups that practiced healing prayer. That the first students of Jesus raised the dead (Acts 9:40, Acts of John 22), healed the sick (Acts 28:8, cf. James 5:14-15), and attempted all kinds of other feats (Mark 11:24, Matthew 7:7-11, 18:19, 21:22, John 14:13-14, 16:23) through prayer would have been for the most part unexceptional in this context.
Did Jesus heal through prayer?
Given this close connection between prayer and healing in Judaism and Christianity, one might expect Jesus to have healed via prayer as well. Yet Jesus incorporates prayer into his healing work on only one occasion in the Gospels. In that singular occurrence Jesus actually makes no request. Instead, he thanks God for the total efficacy of his prayers:
Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me. (John 11:41-42)
The Johannine Jesus, we find here, does not need to intercede on behalf of his patient, Lazarus, as part of the resurrection ritual. Jesus’ prayers are in fact already known and heard by God. This intimacy shared between Jesus and God has made therapeutic prayer redundant. In Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22 Jesus makes a related claim:
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
While other healers had to submit their petitions to God as part of the therapy, Jesus was thought to be in constant and complete communion with God. As far as the evangelists were concerned, Jesus did not regularly practice therapeutic prayer as it was christologically unnecessary. Jesus was not the kind of son who had to ask his father for permission or help; the Father had already authorized the Son to work and speak as the Son saw fit. The Father knew what the Son wanted just as the Son knew what the Father wanted (John 5).
Underneath this christological insight lies a more complicated picture. While Jesus certainly did enjoy a uniquely intimate relationship with the one he called Ἀββᾶ, the prayer in John 11:41-42 attests to another important historical reality: Jesus was known as an effective prayer-healer. God listened to Jesus’ requests in the context of his healing ministry.
There are admittedly few texts that support this conclusion. The Jesus of the Gospels almost exclusively heals and exorcises by the authority vested in him by God (Mark 2:10, Matthew 11:27, Luke 19:10, John 5:27, 17:2), not through prayer. He is presented as God’s authorized agent par excellence. A few passages, however, do corroborate Jesus’ reputation as a prayer-healer whom God listened to.
- On three occasions the Matthean Jesus closes an episode of healing or exorcism with the phrase “let it be done to you [as you wish/in accordance with your faith]” (γενηθήτω σοι) (Matthew 8:13, 9:29, 15:28). The third-person singular imperative γενηθήτω functions in these cases as a petition directed to God. Jesus’ prayer “let your will be done (γενηθήτω) on earth as it is in heaven,” for instance, is effectively a request submitted to God: “May you, O God, establish your will on earth.” God is clearly the implied agent of the imperative passive verb here and elsewhere (cf. Acts 1:20, Romans 9:11).
- On another occasion Jesus’ disciples ask their master why they were unable to exorcise a particular demon. Jesus responds “This kind can come out only through prayer [and fasting]” (Mark 9:29). Like most exorcists of the time then, Jesus believed prayer to be a necessary component of exorcism from time to time. Although Jesus never addresses God during an exorcistic ritual in the Gospels, this saying evidences that Jesus did use such prayers when the treatment required it.
These hints of healing prayer in the Jesus tradition fill out our understanding of Jesus’ therapeutic processes. Among his other techniques (command, touch, saliva, mud, interrogation), Jesus sometimes healed by intercessory prayer on behalf of his patient. In this way Jesus’ work was continuous with that of other Jewish healers before, during, and after the first century.
And yet the Jesus who healed by prayer was quickly abandoned by the early Christians, overshadowed by the Jesus who healed as God’s authorized agent/son. This Jesus too was replaced, this time by the Jesus who healed as God himself.
The Jesus who healed through prayer would likely be undesirable in most corners of the modern world; but perhaps we have lost something of great value in shunning him.